Get a hearty start on the day

A breakfast centered around whole grains can get your engine running and keep your heart ticking.

Breakfast holds a special place in the daily trio of main meals. It's more than just an eye-opener that helps you make the transition from sweet sleep to the day ahead. Coming as it does after the day's longest period without food, breakfast appears to influence metabolism more strongly than lunch or dinner. Its effects on blood sugar, insulin, and appetite echo throughout the day. Getting a smart start in the morning may have an even longer term payoff "" protection against heart disease and possibly a longer, healthier life.

Not to be missed

A host of mostly small studies show that eating breakfast, as compared to skipping it, makes for smaller rises in blood sugar and insulin after all of the day's meals and snacks. Smoothing out the blood sugar and insulin roller coaster can help reduce levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. It can also curb the appetite. People who eat breakfast tend to take in fewer calories over the course of the day than those who skip it. The lesson here "" skipping breakfast as an easy way to cut calories usually backfires.

There's one other benefit worth mentioning. People who eat breakfast tend to have better-quality diets overall than people who skip this meal.

Controlling blood sugar, insulin, and cholesterol and improving diet quality are all well and good. Is there a payoff for what really matters? Several large observational studies suggest that eating breakfast, especially one that includes whole-grain foods, reduces the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or developing type 2 diabetes or heart failure. There are also a handful of studies suggesting that people who routinely eat whole grains, usually in the form of whole-grain breakfast cereal, aren't as likely to die prematurely of cardiovascular disease.

Breakfast ideas

Breakfast can be as simple as a few handfuls of trail mix or as elaborate as a multi-course meal. Here are some suggestions for keeping it as healthful as possible:

  • A bowl of steel-cut oatmeal topped with fruit and walnuts (make a batch on Saturday and eat it all week long)

  • A bowl of high-fiber, whole-grain cereal such as Fiber One, Shredded Wheat, or Cheerios (anything with a whole-grain product as the first ingredient and few added sugars) with milk and sliced banana, strawberries, blueberries, or other fruit

  • 6 or 8 ounces of 1% yogurt with blueberries and sunflower seeds

  • A whole-grain English muffin with peanut butter

  • An omelet made with one egg and one egg white, or egg substitute, served with whole-grain toast and orange slices. A veggie omelet is even better.

  • A whole-wheat tortilla with a smear of peanut butter wrapped around a banana

  • A smoothie made with milk, yogurt, orange or pineapple juice, fresh or frozen strawberries or blueberries, and a few slices of banana. Throw in oat bran, ground flax seeds, or wheat germ for extra fiber and healthful oils.

Quality counts

What you eat for breakfast matters just as much as whether you eat it, if not more so. Breakfast is the perfect opportunity to get some of the multiple servings of fruits and whole grains recommended in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It's also a great time to get some good protein and fats from nuts and seeds.

Breakfast power foods are those that deliver whole grains in one form or another, such as hot cereal, ready-to-eat cereal, granola bars, and breads. Add some berries, which are a storehouse of antioxidants, or other fruit for extra sweetness, fiber, and taste. Sip a cup of coffee or tea, and you have a filling breakfast that's great for the heart and the rest of the body.

Eggs, bacon, donuts, a big bagel brimming with rapidly digested carbohydrates, or other common breakfast foods fill the stomach "" for a while "" and maybe wake up the brain. But they don't have the same kind of health payoff of whole grains and fruit, and some can even set you back healthwise.

Smart starts

Some people see breakfast as the most monotonous meal "" a ho-hum bowl of cereal with milk, a small glass of juice, and a cup or two of coffee. But with a little creativity, breakfast can be the best meal of the day. Try some of the suggestions in "Breakfast ideas." If you're daring, venture beyond traditional American breakfast foods to those of other countries: rice with vegetables and fish, as in parts of China; falafel (bean burgers) served in pita bread, as in Egypt; idli (steamed cakes of fermented rice and lentils), as in southern parts of India; or gallo pinto (refried black beans, rice, and onions), as in Costa Rica.

"Start your day with a good breakfast" is timeless advice that science is only slowly catching up with. But there's no need to wait for more hard evidence on this one.